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Positive school leadership is the key to effective leadership in K-12 schools. Advice for teachers and principals in this personal story to put into practice.

My stomach was all aflutter as I, the new girl, nervously looked for an empty seat in the circle of wooden stools placed in the library for the first faculty meeting of the school year. 

My new principal had rosy cheeks and downturned eyes that communicate friendliness without saying a word. She started by addressing the teachers in the circle, “Each and every one of you is great; I am so proud to work with you. I know we are going to have a super year because of all of you. I am really excited to hear all your great ideas for this year.”

We then went around the circle sharing happy memories of the summer and ideas for the upcoming academic year. I found myself surprisingly unnerved by the relaxed and joyful atmosphere. But what struck me the most was the trust shared between the staff and the principal. This was not the first-day meeting that I had been expecting. I left the meeting wondering “What’s the hitch?”  

I anticipated the meeting to be filled with long lists of things teachers had to do and programs that teachers were expected to follow in order to pass the state test. Subconsciously I had been bracing myself for a meeting that would devolve into a gripe session for teachers to express an unwillingness to follow the latest mandates passed down from the state. Staff meetings are not typically something teachers look forward to and, in some cases, they are dreaded. This meeting was different. The staff members’ ideas were valued and trusted by the principal. The discussion suggested they had the freedom to use their skills and knowledge to be innovative in their classrooms. This was a time for sharing and celebration; however, I remained a bit skeptical that there must be some hidden agenda I was missing.  

After taking time off to raise my two young daughters, I had just returned to teaching. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident. My position was as a part-time reading-improvement teacher.  I wondered if teaching was going to be like riding a bike, sort of muscle memory that, once you learn, you never forget. Or would I need to relearn how to be an effective educator? I was returning to teaching and to the school community with equal parts of excitement and apprehension.   

The first couple of weeks had some successes and some flops, but the principal made that seem perfectly welcome. Teaching metaphor poems to second graders did elicit some tears from the little ones, and I had to be flexible and scale back and meet the students where they were. During a lesson in the first couple of weeks of school, my principal popped into the classroom unannounced. I did not have the standards stated clearly on the board. I did not have my lesson plan handily written. Had I been “caught” by the principal? I felt a wave of anxiety wash over my body. Swallowing my fear, I powered on with the lesson. Several minutes passed and a natural pause emerged. I held my breath as my principal turned and addressed the students, “Aren’t we all so lucky to have Mrs. Peroff at our school? She is such a terrific teacher.” The students smiled and nodded in agreement. I had to consciously close my gaping jaw to respond to such undeserved–in my mind–flattery. I expressed my gratitude for having such fantastic students and a wonderful principal. What? This truly was some sort of twilight zone with my principal stopping by just to pay a compliment. This affirmed that a principal can trust and value her staff to teach the students without checking the boxes of some mandatory evaluation.

As the days and weeks passed, I developed a rapport with my students and staff. Like anything in life, some days I left work feeling great, while on other days I felt like a sham, sure that someone was going to expose me as a sleep-deprived new mom masquerading as a teacher. As I navigated my way back into the teaching profession, I was continuously nurtured and supported by my principal. On several occasions, she stopped by the classroom. She did not scrutinize my lessons, demand documentation, or even offer feedback. She just stopped by to touch base and share a kind word. I felt supported and respected. She trusted my instincts and valued me as a teacher with the ability and training to know what is right for my students. Her confidence in me was contagious. Each time she expressed her gratitude for my work, it became internalized in me. If she thought I was great then I must be great, right? I began to notice it wasn’t just limited to her either. Other staff members were equally positive and supportive. It was common to hear staff members paying compliments to each other in the hallways, lunchroom, or at the copy machine.

Surprisingly, staff meetings were a particularly pleasant experience. Even the physical structure of meetings fostered the community. We sat in a circle allowing every staff member to see the faces of their colleagues. The principal always made a point of beginning meetings by celebrating the successes of the school, staff, and students. Staff members shared a sense of pride in our school that was not linked to test scores or data, although that was cause to celebrate, too.  It was more authentic than that. Because our leader was proud of us, we too were proud of ourselves and our students. This pride swelled and built confidence in me that pushed me to do more and to be more. Because someone thought I was great, I strived to be even greater.  

This is an important lesson for all school leadership or anyone in a leadership position for that matter. Never underestimate the power of positivity and trust. In my school it is contagious. My principal uses her words and actions to help great teachers want to be even better. The culture of positivity is highly infectious. First, it spreads from the principal to the teachers. Teachers then share this with their students. It is so contagious that it follows the kids home and into their families. In the community, family members are proud to share that they are part of our school ohana (family). Staff, students and community members, alike, proudly sport fashionable school hats and other school swag.

Back to the itching question–what’s the hitch with this positive, joyful school environment? Well, there is one. The hitch is that as a staff member in this school you have to believe in yourself and be as great as your leadership knows you are. Teachers can be a highly critical bunch. A kind word and authentic support helps dispel the false notion that we are not good enough, smart enough, or even qualified enough to do what we know is right for our students. Positivity is a powerful tool in cultivating happy staff, students, and community members. I will carry this lesson with me always, along with my school hat. 

Lory Peroff

Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow alumna who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, five chickens, two ducks, and one peahen.